New insights into synaesthesia

May 12, 2014

Scientists studying the bizarre phenomenon of synaesthesia – best described as a "union of the senses" whereby two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together – have made a new breakthrough in their attempts to understand the condition.

V.S. Ramachandran and Elizabeth Seckel from the University of San Diego studied four synaesthetes who experience colour when seeing printed letters of the alphabet. Their aim was to determine at what point during sensory processing these 'colours' appeared.

To do this, the researchers asked their synaesthetes – as well as a – to complete three children's picture puzzles in which words were printed backwards or were not immediately visible.  

When the results were processed, Ramachandran and Seckel discovered that the synaesthetes were able to complete the puzzles three times faster than the control subjects, and with fewer errors. The synaesthetes also revealed that they saw the obscured letters in the puzzles in the same colour as they would the 'normal' letters. This process effectively clued them in to what the letters were, and allowed them to read the distorted words much more quickly than the controls could.

Although it was just a small study, Ramachandran and Seckel's work, published in the current issue of Neurocase, 'strongly supports the interpretation that the synthetic colours are evoked preconsciously early in sensory processing'. The four synaesthetes had an advantage in completing the puzzles because the 'extra' information they received when looking at the letters was then sent up to 'higher levels of , providing additional insight for reading the distorted and backwards text': a fascinating and important insight into a condition those of us who see letters as just letters find simply baffling.

Explore further: Synaesthesia linked to a hyper-excitable brain

More information: Neurocase, 'Synesthetic colors induced by graphemes that have not been consciously perceived', V.S. Ramachandrana & Elizabeth Seckela
DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2014.890728

Related Stories

Synaesthesia linked to a hyper-excitable brain

November 18, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- ‘Hyper-excitability’ in regions of the brain may underlie synaesthesia, an unusual condition where some people experience a ‘blending of the senses’, Oxford University researchers suggest.

Recommended for you

New mechanism discovered behind infant epilepsy

September 3, 2015

Scientists at Karolinska Institutet and Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden have discovered a new explanation for severe early infant epilepsy. Mutations in the gene encoding the protein KCC2 can cause the disease, hereby ...

Neuron responsible for alcoholism found

September 2, 2015

Scientists have pinpointed a population of neurons in the brain that influences whether one drink leads to two, which could ultimately lead to a cure for alcoholism and other addictions.

Scientists see motor neurons 'walking' in real time

September 2, 2015

When you're taking a walk around the block, your body is mostly on autopilot—you don't have to consciously think about alternating which leg you step with or which muscles it takes to lift a foot and put it back down. That's ...

Deciphering the olfactory receptor code

August 31, 2015

In animals, numerous behaviors are governed by the olfactory perception of their surrounding world. Whether originating in the nose of a mammal or the antennas of an insect, perception results from the combined activation ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.